Sunday, May 17, 2020

May 17, 1983, 37 Years Ago This Morning: Oak Ridge Mercury Declassification

On the morning of May 17, 1983, one of the PIOs for the U.S. Department of Energy Oak Ridge Operations called me at our Appalachian Observer office at 121 Leinart Street in Clinton, Tennessee, asking me to send someone to pick up records I requested.  I'm glad that we did.

Declassified records revealed the largest mercury pollution event in world history, at the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.   The pollution was 4.2 million pounds, not the 2.4 million pounds initially disclosed by DOE a/k/a "Denier of Everything."

It turns out that workers breathed 30-60 times the then-prevailing standard for mercury in the air, with no respirators, we learned two months later.

Declassification was a feat for which I was recommended for a Pulizer Prize by reform District Attorney General James Nelson Ramsey.  I'm grateful for parents, teachers and Capitol Hill and journalistic mentors who taught me critical thinking, including Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service professors who touched on declassification in classes.

In November 1982, Appalachian Observer Publisher Ernest F. Phillips and I sent a short letter to DOE, asking for declassification of mercury documents.  Snooty DOE had told the State of Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation and three local newspapers the information was "classified."  Ernie and I did not treat "classified" as an immutable fact.  Declassify the records now, we wrote, to avoid a "potential environmental health disaster." We won.  No lawsuit needed.  182 days after we asked for the documents, we got 'em.   Six days later, I was cross-examining DOE officials at the Oak Ridge City Council.  They did not apologize, so I asked, "Does being DOE mean never having to say you're sorry?"  I asked if the Soviets dumped mercury on Oak Ridge if that would not be considered "an act of war?"

Why it matters: Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation (LEAF) environmental lawsuits, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Taylor,  and DOE Oak Ridge Operations Manager  Joe Ben LaGrone helped transformed the entire nuclear weapons complex.

The $300 billion cleanup of nuclear weapons plants might be completed by my 100th birthday, in 2057.  DOE a/k/a "Denier of Everything" will never be the same again, and neither will Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

DOE did not even have an environmental, safety and health program until after May 17, 1983.  We've all learned a lot since then.

Once upon a time, circa 1981 or 1982, I called DA Jim Ramsey from the basement of the Oak Ridge Federal Building, from the 10 square foot windowless FOIA Reading Room.

I was embarrassed by my lack of a chemical background, so I asked a basic chemistry question of our elected reform DA, whose late father was an Oak Ridge chemist during the Manhattan Project.

I said, "General, what does 'Hg' mean?" 

"Mercury," General Ramsey replied. 

"Well, y'all sure have a lot of that in your creeks around here, General," I replied.

The rest, as they say, is History.

May 17 is (also the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, and the birthday of my courageous Gay rights client, Duane David Rinde, who won equal spousal benefits in 1991 from Woodward &  Lothrop and John Wanamaker -- 30 department stores in six states and the District of Columbia).

Mr. LaGrone told me in a telephone interview several years ago that I was "the crowbar" who got the information released for the public.

Later, after Memphis law school and judicial clerkships with the Labor Department Chief Administrative Law Judge Nahum Litt, I came back to Oak Ridge, suddenly alive with people willing to talk to me.   The Cold War was ending.  The Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

I was honored to represent environmental, nuclear and security whistleblowers in this and other "dark satatic mills," including the first Oak Ridge whistleblowers, C.D. "Bud" Varnadore and Dr. William K. Reid, M.D., in epic labor law litigation, and Sherry Farver, in a landmark medical malpractice case.  DOE and other employers ultimately helped get me suspended and disbarred by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

But that's another story.

Update: Ironically, the local Judge who grew to preside over the landmark trial of Farver v. Carpenter, Judge James B. Scott, Jr., was buried May 17, 2019 (a year ago today), the 37th anniversary of the mercury declassification. Judge Scott and his brother-in-law, Judge Allen V Kidwell both worked in the toxic nuclear weapons plants, as did their adversary, District Attorney James Nelson. Ramsey. Ramsey, County Attorney David Stuart, and their opposite numbers from Roane County came close to filing a certified sworn public nuisance lawsuit against DOE and Union Carbide based upon he sworn testimony in the July 11, 1983 Al Gore public hearing on the mercury pollution. While the State of Tennessee and Legal Environmental Assistance Foundatio (LEAF) filed suit, winning a precedent that nuclear weapons plants were covered by environmental laws, no one was ever indicted for corporate homicide and massive environmental crimes. Wonder why?

Ernie Phillips and Anne S. Anne S Phillips made the Appalachian Observer possible, asking questions, demanding answers and expecting democracy in a place long run by autocrats.

Their daughter, Terry Frank, is now the Mayor of Anderson County, where Y-12 sits.

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